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The Secret Relationship Between Birds and Hurricanes

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The Secret Relationship Between Birds and Hurricanes

Katrina & Beyond

The Secret Relationship Between Birds and Hurricanes

The Secret Relationship Between Birds and Hurricanes

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Charles Kennedy, the president of the South Alabama Birding Association, talks with Liane Hansen about the behavior of birds he has seen over the years as they are blown from their natural habitat by hurricanes.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Last weekend, as Hurricane Wilma turned from ravaging the Yucatan Peninsula and took aim at Florida, the Associated Press reported that pelicans along the Gulf Coast beaches in the storm's path had disappeared from their usual perches. This news came as the National Hurricane Center was releasing increasingly specific forecasts of Wilma's path and voracity. And we wondered whether feathered inhabitants of this planet have some prognosticating software that human meteorologists might envy. So we got in touch with Charles Kennedy. He's founder and president of the South Alabama Birding Association and he's been keeping a close eye on birds for more than 40 years. When we spoke with him late last week, he told us how he became particularly interested in following the effect of hurricanes on birds.

Mr. CHARLES KENNEDY (South Alabama Birding Association): A hurricane is quite an event in itself, and for bird watchers, it offers some opportunities to see birds in unusual places that you might not see. Like 200 miles from the coast, you might see seabirds. We bird watchers keep a list. We're pathological about it. We have county lists. We have yard lists. We have life lists. The list of lists goes on and on, and so when you have birds that get blown two or 300 miles from their normal habitat, `Gee whiz, hey, guys, I just put a laughing gull on my yard list. Ha-ha, I bet you can't beat that.'

HANSEN: I understand that you actually were very close to Hurricane Opal in 1995.

Mr. KENNEDY: Oh, Opal came right over my house. At 8:00 that night, it was blowing like a hundred miles an hour across my window. My wife and I were holding a prayer meeting in the basement, and then all of a sudden, it got just as still as death and my wife said, `Well, thank the Lord, that's over.' And I said, `Well, what you should have said is, "Thank the Lord, that's half over," 'cause we're right in the eye of this thing. And in about 15 minutes this old girl is going to turn the dogs loose on us again. But in the meantime, I'm going outside and see what it looks like.'

Well, I walk out and it's a perfect October night. And, you know, I'm looking up and I'm seeing stars. It's just calm. And I can hear birds. I hear seabirds. It's like I'm in Mobile or Gulf Shores. And I think, `Oh, man, tomorrow morning as soon as it gets light, it's going to be something. It's going to be a bird watcher's bonanza up here in Greenville, Alabama, 150 miles from the coast.' So sure enough I get up at daylight and then I start walking down to the shopping center parking lot which is about a half a mile away.

Well, when I get down there to that lot, there are gulls and terns. Then I walk out on the interstate bridge so I can get a good long view and a magnificent frigate bird flies right over my head. Well, if you go down to Ft. Morgan on the Alabama coast or Dauphin Island, you see frigate birds fairly often, especially in the summer, but, gee whiz, to see a frigate bird flying down the interstate in Greenville, Alabama, headed due south is quite phenomenal.

HANSEN: Now what happens then with these seabirds and these terms and the frigate birds and the black skimmers when they're out of their natural habitat because of a hurricane? What happens to them? I mean, how soon is it before they begin to fly back to where they came from?

Mr. KENNEDY: All right. Generally by the time a hurricane, unless it's like a Katrina--Katrina blew seabirds all the way into Tennessee. It was a monster. But as soon as the storm basically fizzles--and they're not harmed. A bird that actually would get caught in the eye wall, in the 150-mile-an-hour wind, would probably get blown to death shortly, but that doesn't really happen much because birds are fairly smart about things like this. They've been riding out hurricanes for centuries, but anyway, as soon as they can, they're going to head back to the coast.

Say they drop out on the Wal-Mart parking lot in Greenville, Alabama, and they light on the ground just to get a break from being in the hurricane. As soon as the wind quits blowing, the sun's back out, they look around and say, `Hey, guys, we can't make a living on a Wal-Mart parking lot. Let's head back south.' So, you know, within six hours or so, usually within the day, all of those birds are headed back south and most of them are back home by dark. If you want to chase hurricane birds to put them on your list, you have to get out pretty quick.

HANSEN: Charles Kennedy is founder and president of the South Alabama Birding Association. He spoke with us late last week from Troy, Alabama.

(Soundbite of music; birds)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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